Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Book review: "Shoeless Joe"
“Shoeless Joe” may be the perfect Spring Training read; if W.P. Kinsella’s novel won’t get you excited about baseball, absolutely nothing ever will.
I finished reading “Shoeless Joe” yesterday, the first time I’ve read it since it was assigned when I took Lofflin’s baseball fiction class over six years ago.
In an earlier post, I wrote that it’s important to forget about the movie “Field of Dreams” when you’re reading “Shoeless Joe.” And you should - but if the movie is ingrained in your psyche, like it is for me and for many red-blooded Americans, you’ll find un-ignorable echoes of the movie throughout the novel.
“Shoeless Joe” the novel is the story of an Iowa corn farmer named Ray Kinsella who hears the voice of a baseball announcer proclaiming the seven words that have now become a pop culture cliché: “If you build it, he will come.” He instantly sees a vision what the voice had in mind, and knows he must build a baseball diamond in his cornfield so Shoeless Joe Jackson could come back and play ball. He lays out a simplistic version of a diamond in the cleared section of field, paying special attention to left field, where the long-deceased slugger disgraced by the Black Sox scandal of 1919 used to play. After left field is completed, Jackson appears - and Kinsella’s humble field magically turns in to a full-size, ghostly baseball stadium.
But the voice isn’t done with Ray yet; he gets sent to New Hampshire to track down reclusive author J.D. Salinger, and the two of them head to Minnesota to inquire about a deceased doctor named Archie “Moonlight” Graham who played one inning of major league ball. Ray’s twin brother also makes an appearance, plus there’s a plot line with an elderly man who claims to be the oldest living Chicago Cubs player, and Ray’s evil brother-in-law trying to buy the Kinsella plot in order to build a computer-controlled mega-farm.
Although I enjoyed the book for numerous reasons, I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. I didn’t really remember this from when I read it originally, but “Shoeless Joe” is not very well written. In places, it seems like Kinsella struggled to form good sentences; at times, the tense is confusing; and the author relies too heavily on metaphor and simile (seems like there’s at least a couple on every page). And I’ve always been fascinated by the amount of ego it must take for an author to give the main character his own last name. (I'm simplifying too much here - characters named Kinsella were actually used in two stories written by J.D. Salinger, and it makes sense in the plotline to have character names used in Salinger's writing. But still...)
But the bottom line is this: “Shoeless Joe” spawned a classic baseball movie, maybe the best ever. And “Shoeless Joe” and “Field of Dreams” share some of the most iconic lines ever written about baseball - and about life. I’ll end this too-long post with a few of those lines, which dripped from Kinsella’s pen:
“This must be heaven.” - Shoeless Joe Jackson
“No, it’s Iowa.” - Ray Kinsella
“This is my favorite place in the whole world… Once the land touches you, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for the land like it was your child.” - Moonlight Graham
“I’d have liked the chance to stare down a pitcher. Stare him down, and then wink just as he goes into the wind-up; make him wonder if I know something he doesn’t… Yes, that’s what I wish for, Ray Kinsella: the chance to squint my eyes when the sky is so blue it hurts to look at it…” - Moonlight Graham
“…The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time…” - J.D. Salinger in the book, Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) in the movie